No matter your neurotype, meetings can be a hassle, but your autistic employees may find them downright distressing due to the way they’re currently structured. The good news is, you can make your meetings more accessible by following the tips below.
1. Schedule meetings in advance
Remember how you felt in grade school when the teacher got up in front of the class and announced a pop quiz? That sinking feeling in your stomach, that sudden dryness in your throat? That’s what an unscheduled meeting can feel like for your autistic employees.
The autistic brain thrives on sameness and routine, so any change to that routine should be scheduled in advance to give your autistic employees a chance to process it ahead of the event.
2. Take dietary restrictions into consideration
I did a full article on this recently, but I want to circle back, as this factor is often overlooked in company meeting planning. Many people, autistic and neurotypical alike, have dietary restrictions that make events with food tricky and uncomfortable.
To mitigate this, ask if there are any dietary restrictions ahead of the meeting, and offer alternatives.
However, if your employee takes none of the food offered, avoid asking questions or making comments about it. It should be a non-issue. After all, you’re there to work, not learn the ins and outs of each other’s personal health history.
3. Have a clear agenda that doesn’t change
Another way to make meetings more accessible to your autistic employees is to have a clear agenda that covers only 1-3 primary topics and to stick to that agenda instead of changing it last minute or halfway through the meeting. Consistency keeps everyone on the same page and reduces unnecessary stress and confusion for all of your employees.
4. Email the meeting agenda beforehand
At least a week before the meeting, send an email with an outline of the meeting agenda. Use clear, concise, and literal language with bullet points and a list of the primary discussion topics in the order in which they will be presented.
If there will be people from outside the usual staff attending the meeting, be sure to mention that and include names and photos of said staff in the email to make recognition and communication easier.
5. Be specific about meeting structure and protocol
In addition to providing a meeting agenda that outlines planned discussion topics, it’s also important to be specific about the meeting structure and protocol that is expected to be followed. For example, how formal is the meeting? Is the head of the company coming in to speak on a serious topic, or is it a casual department meeting where comments and questions are openly encouraged? Should employees hold their comments and questions until the end of the meeting, or will they be expected to chime in between topics?
Being specific about meeting structure and protocol provides accessibility for your autistic employees because it reduces the stress associated with trying to “read the room” and know where and when to jump in. This way, nobody’s communication style is mistaken for rudeness, insubordination, or lack of interest.
6. Have one person speak at a time
When meetings get intense, and ideas start flying, it can be challenging to keep the conversation to just one person at a time, but it’s important to bring it back to that format for your neurodivergent employees who may have trouble processing auditory information coming from multiple sources at once.
7. Allow employees to step out of meetings
Anxiety, sensory overload, needing the bathroom, etc., should all be taken into consideration during meetings, and employees should be able to step out to take care of them without reprisal. After all, if your employee is physically or mentally uncomfortable, they won’t be able to absorb the information you’re presenting, so making it mandatory to stay will defeat your original purpose of bringing everyone together in the first place.
8.Consider name badges
With company-wide meetings that will involve several departments, consider using name badges. Names and faces can be difficult for your autistic employees to keep track of otherwise, especially if they are names and faces they don’t interact with on a routine basis.
To use myself as an example, I have moderate face blindness, and I have a hard time recognizing people out of context, so, for example, if I’m only used to seeing Shelley from accounting at her desk wearing her reading glasses, and she’s now standing opposite me in the conference room, way taller than I expected and without her glasses, I might introduce myself to her thinking she’s a new person.
This could cause her to think I’m being sarcastic or rude, and I’m left embarrassed and confused while she’s left wondering what’s going on with me. Not an ideal way to start a cooperative meeting.
9. Make use of visual aids
During the meeting, make use of visual aids during presentations for those employees who are visual learners. Information presented in walls of text can be difficult for any employee, but it may be especially challenging for your autistic workers. Use visual aids to break up text, not as filler or decoration, but as a complementary way to convey your written message.
10. Allow email questions after the meeting
Neurotypical people are largely top-down thinkers, which means their brains start with the whole picture based on context clues and prior experience, and the individual details factor in later. Many autistic people, on the other hand, are bottom-up thinkers, which means our brains gather the details first to form a complete picture.
Because of this, your autistic employees may have questions about the meeting a day or two after it’s taken place. This is because their brains are still putting the details together to form the whole picture, and when they discover gaps in this picture, they will go to you with questions to fill in those gaps.
Allow them to email you with these questions, even if you’ve largely forgotten about the meeting, and be sure to answer them clearly and concisely. Keep in mind that they didn’t wait to ask questions due to laziness, they were just still processing!
Making meetings more accessible for your autistic employees not only makes things more manageable for them, it also makes your company a safer, friendlier, more streamlined place to work.
Clear expectations and information laid out in several formats keep all of your employees on the same page for longer periods of time, which means more productivity and, you guessed it–fewer meetings!